Movie Review :: Carnage (2011) (R)

There are many moments in Roman Polanski’s Carnage that elicited laughter from me, but that doesn’t mean that I found it funny. If anything, it was an unconscious reaction, a defense mechanism against the ugliness the film depicts. The only experience I can liken it to is listening to your parents fight; as they scream at each other, you find yourself doing whatever’s necessary to distract yourself, be it laugh, clap your hands, or simply cover your ears. If you examine this story from a distance, you may find that it really isn’t a comedy at all. It’s an unsettling human portrait that delves into dualities, namely the person we show to the world and the person we really are inside. What I find disheartening is that it examines characters whose real selves are deeply unpleasant.

This forces me to wonder: Are the filmmakers making a statement about them alone, or are they making a statement about people in general? I sincerely hope it’s the former, because I refuse to believe that we as human beings are programmed to be cruel and that there’s no such thing as innate decency. The very thought depresses me to no end. Adapted from Yasmina Reza’s French play Le Dieu du Carnage and its English adaptation God of Carnage, the film is both great and appalling in its examination of how we behave towards one another. Taking place in New York City, it tells the story of two sets of parents who, following a schoolyard scuffle between their respective children, decide to meet and discuss the matter. What begins as a civil discussion quickly degenerates into verbal warfare.

Let’s examine this a little more closely. In one corner, we have Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly). The former is a writer, a collector of art books, and a campaigner for liberal causes in an underdeveloped African country – and unless I’m remembering it wrong, I believe it’s Ethiopia. The latter is a wholesaler for home improvement supplies. In the other corner, we have Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz). They’re a power couple; the former is an investment broker while the latter is a lawyer. The issue: Their son, Zachary, hit Penelope and Michael’s son, Ethan, in the face with a stick following a disagreement about the former joining the latter’s gang. Dental work may be required because of this. Was Zachary “armed” with a stick, or was he “carrying” it? There will be some discussion between the four parents regarding this.

Although indisputably tense, the initial stages of the meeting are cordial. Penelope even serves a cobbler she made, which is based on a recipe from Michael’s mother. But the cracks immediately start to show, and by the time Nancy vomits all over the Longstreets’ coffee table – on which rested Penelope’s favorite out-of-print art book – things dramatically escalate. In due time, issues that have absolutely nothing to do with their children will be brought up, including differing parental and marital ideologies, a rather awful incident with a hamster, Penelope’s political correctness, Alan’s infuriating habit of stopping every five minutes to take a call on his cell phone, a dispute over the negative side effects of a medication, and Michael’s inability to think beyond the obvious. The wives and husbands will side against each other before they each side with the opposite spouse and end up right back where they started. By the end of the film, everyone is drunk and the gloves have come off.

The intention of this film is not to get us to agree or disagree with any particular character, although I have no doubt certain audiences will interpret it that way. The real intention, I believe, is to show the hypocrisy of the characters, four well-educated, middle class people who, even with the best of intentions, hide behind a façade of politeness. Are Polanski and Reza, who both wrote the screenplay, suggesting that we all hide behind this façade? I hope not. They do, however, draw fascinating parallels between the adults and the children, the latter seen in bookended segments and only from a distance. To describe them would do you a disservice. You should be able to see them on your own.

That the performances are excellent, there can be no doubt. Indeed, it helps when an Oscar-winning director casts three Oscar-winning actors and one who was Oscar-nominated. That the film is technical triumph, I cannot argue. The story unfolds in real time (just under eighty minutes) and almost entirely within the confines of the Longstreets’ apartment, all contemporary furniture and clean white surfaces. One could even make the argument that this is the fourth chapter of Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy. Carnage is expertly made, and yet I find myself feeling uneasy, for its comedy is drawn from tragic human defects we should be striving to purge ourselves of. There’s no question in my mind that this story is realistic. That doesn’t mean I appreciated what it had to say.


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